Stella Duffy was born in London and grew up in New Zealand. She has written thirteen novels, her latest being The Purple Shroud. She has also written ten plays – most recently The Book of Ruth (and Naomi) for Sixty-Six Books at the Bush Theatre; and fifty short stories. Stella won the 2002 CWA Short Story Dagger for her story 'Martha Grace', and has twice won a Stonewall Writer of the Year: in 2008 for The Room of Lost Things and in 2010 for Theodora. In addition to her writing work she is a theatre performer and director. She is looking forward to Equal Marriage so she can marry her partner of 22 years, the writer Shelley Silas. Here Stella writes about Patricia Highsmith's Carol.
Stella Duffy on Carol by Patricia Highsmith
'There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol.'
Patricia Highsmith's Carol is my ideal love story. Some passion, some loss, something to fight for, and a happy ending. Mills and Boon, however, it is not. Not least because the lovers are both women. One young, new to the world, and hopeful; the other wiser, older, impossibly glamorous and already aware of what it takes to survive any relationship. It is as stylish and spare as any of Highsmith's works, with a humanity and compassion which readers who only know her as the creator of Ripley might find surprising. I love the Ripley books, Ripley Under Water in particular, but they don't exactly stand out for their human warmth.
Highsmith published Carol under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. She wrote it after she finished Strangers on a Train, which was bought by Hitchcock to make into a film. In her afterword to the Bloomsbury (UK) revised edition of Carol, published in 1989, Highsmith recounts that her agent and publisher were keen for her to write a second novel similar to Strangers on a Train – publishing is a business like any other, it thrives on the slightly different packaging of more of the same, and Carol was definitely not more of the same. Eventually Carol was published by a different publisher, with the title The Price of Salt, selling respectably in hardback and then spectacularly in paperback. The publishers might have been frightened of selling a Patricia Highsmith novel about a lesbian relationship; the public were happy to buy it written by Claire Morgan.
The reaction of Highsmith's publisher is understandable, if sad. The reading public, ever keen to conflate writer with protagonist, might not have been quite so hungry for an amoral anti-hero written by a writer they also assumed was lesbian. In McCarthyite America, falling in love with a Europhile character as devious and deliciously transgressive as Ripley was permissible, at least in the context of a genre where the good reads are not always about good guys. Falling in love with that character, written by an author presumed to be lesbian, at a time when homosexuality equated with communism equated with evil, would no doubt have been an honesty too far. When we think of the number of public figures who are still shy about declaring their sexuality even now, it is to Highsmith's enormous credit to consider that she pushed to have it published in the first place, and then again later under her own name, outing her work and herself.
It is particularly surprising to realize that Carol was published sixty years ago. Of course there is Highsmith's prose to account for some of its longevity, but I also think the core relationship is so real in the good and bad of love and lust, the pleasures and the false starts, the discomforting presence of ex-lovers and difficult friends and confused family, that it becomes possible for us to read the novel as a thing in itself, not merely a historical account of how it was to be gay then.
I also think Carol is praiseworthy for what it is not. Highsmith is not overly concerned with coming out, she does not give us a study in agonized, unrequited passion, she does not give us only-bad men and only-good women. What we have instead are rounded characters with friends and relationships and lives outside of the central relationship between Therese and Carol, a beautifully evoked New York, and a passionate love story that slowly, and realistically, takes flight.
Two more flippant asides from this: one is that I'm almost entirely certain that Joyce, the young, lesbian character in Mad Men (the one who is Peggy's friend) is modelled on Therese: and the other is about When I Met Patricia Highsmith (it's not a big story, you don't need to sit up straight)...
I have never had a 'proper' job in my life. The one where you have holiday pay and sick pay and bank holidays and all that. But I did, in 1988, have something close, when I was a temp-who-stayed for five months at Bloomsbury. I was the office dogsbody, doing everything from photocopying A Prayer for Owen Meany and Cat's Eye backwards (old photocopier, no collating, and both also on my 'best books' list, brilliant backwards as well as forwards), to making showcards under the demanding eye of Caroline Michel. At lunchtime I would take over from Madeleine who sat on reception and answer the door, take messages, field calls from authors waiting for lunching editors. Often authors arrived for lunch with Liz (Calder) or Nigel (Newton), sometimes they were irritated with me that their lunch date wasn't ready and waiting, and sometimes they assumed I'd know their name. Once an author ran in, ran up the stairs, and shouted behind him 'Tell Nigel I'm here'. I so wanted to ask him who the hell he was. I didn't. It was 1988, everyone knew who Bob Geldof was. Terence Stamp, on the other hand, always gave his name. And once a small woman stood in front of me at the desk, and asked quietly for Liz, saying 'I'm Pat Highsmith'. I knew who she was. And I loved her for not assuming.
And so, back to Carol. A grey-eyed blonde in a fur coat wearing memorable perfume, a vibrant young woman trying to find her way as a theatre designer, a trickster best friend, a confused and angry boyfriend, Manhattan in the early '50s, sad-comedy neighbours, and a private detective recording conversations in a dingy hotel room... all this and a road trip. What more could you ask?
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]